Michael P. Cohn is being honored as a Champion of Change for his dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy.
Researchers have noted that, “a focus on healthy lifestyle behaviors that can facilitate a transition back into civilian life” is often missing from many treatment approaches for mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other deployment-related set-backs. Furthermore, fear of stigma associated with asking for help may keep many veterans from seeking the care they need for the negative effects caused by stress, isolation, and lack of structure associated with returning home from deployment. Therapeutic recreation therapy may provide solutions for both of these problems as well as open up enormous opportunities in many others.
Therapeutic recreation programs are uniquely suited to provide veterans treatment, while also helping individuals “recover basic motor functioning and reasoning abilities, build confidence, and socialize effectively to enable greater independence” (US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009). For instance, results from a pilot study of therapeutic fly fishing for veterans with PTSD were promising, and demonstrated the utility of the program in: 1) reducing “re-experiencing” of traumatic events; 2) reducing psychological numbing and increasing social connectedness; and 3) calming hyper-arousal through physical activity and peaceful surroundings (Dustin et al., 2011).
I, personally, have experienced the healing and restorative power of a day spent in the wilderness. After returning home from a yearlong stint in Afghanistan, I experienced some of the difficulties of re-integration described by many veterans when they transition back to life after deployment. During this time, I began to re-engage with my childhood hobbies of fishing and birding. I found myself invigorated by my outdoor experiences, with a renewed sense of focus and purpose. The more I engaged in the activity, the more I was able to get out of it, the more I knew what I didn't know but wanted to. I soon wanted to make more of a commitment, wanting, not necessarily more meaning from the activities, but more reason and purpose to share it with others. This led me to make contact and then begin to work with the many platforms and projects sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that work to develop and integrate information and mobile technologies to track birds in their natural habitats.
In working with Cornell, I became aware of the burgeoning field of Citizen Science. Cornell prioritizes educating participants and providing them with easy to use, accessible, web-based tools to track ecological data. Research teams based in government organizations, private firms, or educational institutions stand to gain much from the involvement of citizen scientists, due to the low costs and minimal training required to implement wide-spread ecological tracking programs.
As I have learned more about Citizen Science, I have become convinced of the potential for the field to contribute to the engagement and treatment of returning veterans. By combining outdoor recreation with scientifically oriented, purpose-driven activities (like, for example, bird tracking), veterans can enjoy the benefits of therapeutic recreation, while also directly contributing to the conservation, rehabilitation, and advancement of American wildlife and wild spaces. In this way, veterans can continue their service to the country by way of Citizen Science. Researchers and others that are not, or cannot be in the field are nevertheless empowered by the range of data collected and are able to produce findings that would not be possible without the effort of Citizen Scientists and the mobile technologies, which bring them together and demonstrate the singular purpose.
The vision of Soldiers2Scientists, I believe, makes a pretty compelling case for Veterans and Wounded Warriors to team with the Department of Interior and National Park Service, along with multiple local, state, and national agencies, and together with Cornell's Ornithology Lab, The American Kestrel Project, Audubon and many others, across the country and beyond, to identify important scientific and conservation requirements which can then be provided as a citizen science project to returning soldiers, as a way to decompress in the Great American Outdoors, while at the same time, conducting meaningful work that serves to protect and preserve our country’s resources.
Taken together with the growing army of citizen scientist volunteers across the country, and with the accessibility, applicability, and mobility of many citizen science-related technologies, I think we are just beginning to understand the scope of the potential and socio-historical implications for the democratization of scientific inquiry and research!
Michael P. Cohn is the Founder of Soldiers2Scientists.